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I have seen this expression to describe the China - North Korea relationship, but not with enough context to know what it means:

China, while not pleased about the nuclear advancement of North Korea, also has a historical “lips and teeth” relationship with North Korea and is Pyongyang’s largest trading partner"

it was also used as a headline:

"Lips and Teeth: It’s time for China to get tough with North Korea."

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    I had no idea what this meant either, before I read Centaurus' explanation. Either the writer is Chinese, or it is a (bad) literal translation from the Chinese. – TonyK Sep 27 '16 at 16:33
  • It means a very close relationship. As close as lips to teeth. – MetaEd Sep 27 '16 at 17:35
  • @TonyK Shirley that should mean that this question is off topic in ELL... – Aron Sep 28 '16 at 4:22
  • @Aron: are you saying that the answer reveals the question to have been off-topic? That is surely a logical impossibility? – TonyK Sep 29 '16 at 17:08
  • @TonyK When you put it that way....even so...it is unlikely this answer will be useful to future viewers... – Aron Sep 29 '16 at 17:09
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"If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold"

This is a Chinese proverb meaning that if one of two interdependent things falls, the other will be in danger.

This "lips and teeth relationship" is a relationship of interdependence. China and North Korea have long enjoyed this kind of political and economic relationship, with China being "the lips" (the protective partner) that prevent "the teeth" (North Korea) from being cold.

  • The idiom derived from a story in the Spring and Autumn Period, when the State of Jin sent an envoy to the State of Yu with a lot of money and goods on a mission to persuade the State of Yu into agreeing to Jin State's request for attacking the State of Guo via the Yu State. The stupid Duke of Yu agreed. One of his ministers learnt it and said: "the State of Yu and the State of Guo are like lips and teeth. If the State of Guo is wiped out, so will the State of Yu". But the Duke of Yu turned a deaf ear to him. In the end, the State of Yu was indeed wiped out by the State of Jin shortly after it destroyed the State of Guo. -- from Cultural China
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    I don't think you've identified the relationship correctly. North Korea owes its existence to China propping it up at the end of the Korean war. They did this because "lips and teeth": North Korea serves as lips that shield China from direct exposure to South Korea (seen as a dangerous agent of the USA). An English idiom would be "buffer state". – Xerxes Sep 27 '16 at 19:11
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    @Xerxes i think the discussion of who is lip and who is teeth is secondary as to identifing the idiom, its roots and an example of use. We could take the task of identifying the correct relationship to history.SE, but for the language what was done by Centaurus is enough. – Mindwin Sep 27 '16 at 21:08
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    I don't think the phrase 唇齿相依 implies that one side is "lips" and the other is "teeth", no more than the English phrase "hand in glove" implies that one party is the "hand" and the other is the "glove". Most of the dictionaries I've checked gloss the phrase as "interdependency" or "mutual dependence". – duskwuff Sep 27 '16 at 21:57
  • @duskwuff You're right and I address that point in my answer. In 2016, however, it seems to me that North Korea needs China's political and economic support infinitely more than China needs North Korea's. – Centaurus Sep 27 '16 at 22:49
  • Based on further research, I think duskwuff is right: there's no distinction between the two parties. It seems to me that, as such, it doesn't really apply to the extremely asymmetric NK-PRC relationship, but maybe there are further subtleties I'm missing. – Xerxes Sep 28 '16 at 0:19

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